Police in Myanmar crack down on monks
YANGON, Myanmar — Police fired warning shots in an attempt to disperse more than 100 Buddhist monks who defied the military government's ban on public assembly today by trying to penetrate a barricade blocking Yangon's famed Shwedagon Pagoda.
Beating their shields with batons and shouting orders to disperse, police in full riot gear chased some of the monks and about 200 of their supporters while others tried to stubbornly hold their place. Some fell to the ground amid the chaos.
Reuters reported security forces used tear gas and some of the monks were beaten or manhandled as they were taken away. Reuters said about 80 were arrested.
Authorities earlier had blocked all four major entrances to the soaring pagoda, one of the most sacred in Myanmar.
The junta imposed a 9 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew in key cities and banned all public gatherings of more than five people after an eighth day of anti-government protests Tuesday in Yangon and other areas of the country.
Soldiers with assault rifles then sealed sacred Buddhist monasteries and other flashpoints of anti-government protests to contain the monks and quell the biggest demonstrations in nearly two decades.
After Tuesday's protest by an estimated 10,000 monks and lay supporters, some shouting "democracy, democracy," junta supporters were seen driving around Yangon warning via loudspeakers that "action" would be taken against anyone who continues to support the demonstrations, news-agency reports said.
"A crackdown is imminent," predicted Bertil Lintner, a veteran Myanmar specialist based in neighboring Thailand.
Similar protests in 1988 were put down by soldiers firing weapons into crowds of demonstrators, killing several thousand. But this time security forces so far have remained in the background during more than a week of anti-government agitation that has built into the most serious challenge of the military junta since the 1988 disturbances.
The junta warned on government-controlled television Monday night that security forces could step in unless the current wave of demonstrations came to a halt. The threat followed a daylong protest march in Yangon estimated to have included more than 50,000 people, perhaps up to 100,000.
At the same time, the religious-affairs minister, Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung, ordered senior Buddhist leaders to rein in younger monks leading the charge in the streets. "If the monks go against the rules and regulations in the authority of Buddhist teachings, we will take action under existing laws," the broadcast quoted him as saying.
In what could be a preview of things to come, several hundred monks protesting in the northwestern city of Sittwe were attacked with tear gas and roughed up by security forces, Reuters reported. Others reportedly were arrested, sparking anger among their fellow monks in Yangon.
The protests started Aug. 19, set off by a stiff rise in fuel prices. But they have escalated into a head-on political challenge against the military leadership that has run Myanmar, also called Burma, for most of the past half-century.
Spearheaded by the Buddhist monks who are revered by the nation's 56 million inhabitants, the demonstrations in recent days also have broadened to embrace lay students and members of the National League for Democracy, the party headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Asian Human Rights Commission in Washington said in a statement that the demonstrations, although they started over the economic strains, have evolved into an "uprising to end the country's military dictatorship."
From President Bush's announcement of tougher sanctions Tuesday at the United Nations to an appeal for national reconciliation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the junta and its leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, have been urged to abandon their exclusive grip on power as public concern over the increasingly tense situation surges across Asia and beyond.
Information from The Washington Post, The Associated Press and Reuters is included in this report.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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